The Spiritual Gifts: Prophecy

Perhaps no other gift in particular has been more controversial than the gift of prophecy (it would be followed closely by the gift of tongues). Yet, the Apostle Paul holds prophecy up as the most important of all the Spiritual Gifts (1 Cor. 14:1). The controversy revolves around the relationship of prophecy to the Holy Scriptures. The gift of prophecy does not have the same level of authority as the Holy Scriptures.

I can appreciate the major concerns of many of my brothers and sisters regarding the issue of modern prophecy. Prophecy is, after all, a “human report of divine revelation” (Storms, Practicing the Power, 82). The concern is two-fold. On the one hand, there is a concern that God is giving new revelation that was not contained in the Scriptures, therefore calling into question the sufficiency of the Word. On the other hand, there is a concern that such “new revelation” would diverge from the testimony of Holy Scripture, therefore calling into question the authority of God’s Word. So the argument against prophecy’s continuance goes like this: either God’s Word is sufficient and authoritative, and therefore we don’t need modern prophecy, or it is not and we must appeal for constant new revelation from God. The error in this argument, however, is with its understanding of modern prophecy.

Much thinking with regard to modern prophecy relates it back to the Old Testament prophets. These prophets were God’s specially chosen spokesmen who could boldly declare: Thus says the Lord. Their words were authoritative and to be regarded as divine command. To disbelieve or disobey a prophet’s words was to disbelieve or disobey God Himself (Deut. 18:19; 1 Sam. 8:7; 1 Kings 20:36. Just to name a few passages). In the New Testament, however, we do not see prophets fulfilling that same role. Instead, the category of individuals who speak with that level of divine authority, who write the very words of God which become cannon, are the Apostles. Wayne Grudem observes:

When the apostles want to establish their unique authority, they never appeal to the title “prophet” but rather call themselves “apostles” (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1; 9:1-2; 2 Cor. 1:1; 11:12-13; 12:11-12; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; 3:2; etc.) (The Gift of Prophecy, 314).

The title shifts from prophet to apostle in the New Testament. Grudem argues that the shift occurs as the term itself took on a more generic meaning in the culture just prior to the New Testament. “Prophet” had acquired a broad range of meanings often disconnected from divine authority. As such, the terms usage in the New Testament changes too.

Prophets in the New Testament did not speak with divine authority. Several examples can help to demonstrate this. For example, in Acts 21:4 we read:

 And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.

The language connects the words of these disciples with the Spirit of God. They were telling Paul, “through the Spirit,” not to go to Jerusalem. But what does Paul do? “When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey” (v. 5). Paul disregarded their prophecy. Paul would never have done this had he believed that they spoke with complete divine authority. He understood their prophecy differently, and went to Jerusalem anyways.

One of the more famous accounts of prophecy in the book of Acts is that of Agabus, in Acts 21:10-11. Here too we find that prophecy in the New Testament did not function in the exact parallel way to that in the Old Testament. One of the major factors of proving authenticity as a prophet in the Old Testament was the accuracy of the prophetic prediction. In Acts 21, Agabus describes Paul’s imprisonment by the Romans, but he does not accurately describe all the details. The revelation he received gave him part of the picture, but his description of the events to others was not completely accurate. God, of course, is 100% accurate, but the New Testament gift of prophecy is imperfect.

Paul also instructs the church to weigh prophetic words. In 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 Paul commands the church not to despise prophecy, but to test everything. In 1 Corinthians 14:29, prophets are to weigh one another’s words. This is not the same as checking for accuracy of prediction, this has more to do with evaluation of content. The difference is startling, for there was no “weighing” of the OT prophet’s words. Clearly, Paul sees New Testament prophecy as different.

Finally, we may note that Paul very specifically subjects New Testament prophecy to the apostles’ words. In 1 Corinthians 14:37-38, Paul claims a greater authority:

If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.

Prophets and prophecies are subject to Scripture, not on par with it, nor greater than it. Prophecies are not the “word of God for today,” the Bible is.

No authority is parallel to Scripture, and we see that clearly articulated within the pages of Scripture. In fact, when the apostles point to the authority and standard of truth and conduct for the churches they do not point to prophets and prophecies, but to Scripture. Yet, prophecies still clearly happened among the church. So, as we continue to think about this specific gift we need to think about the specific function of prophecies. We start with their subordinate nature, but still more must be said. New Testament prophecies are not equal in authority to Scripture, and therefore we ought to be less concerned about their displacing Scripture in the life of the believer and the church.

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